243! That is how old our nation will be Thursday when we celebrate Independence. If you have never been, spending the Fourth at the St. John’s church reenactment of the March 1775 meeting of the Second Virginia Convention is a moving experience. It was there, on March 23, that Patrick Henry offered his stirring speech ending with “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.”
The next year the Declaration of Independence gave these words to posterity:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights- that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Liberty, a core principle of our democracy. When the Continental Congress declared the separation of the thirteen colonies from Great Britain, liberty was foremost in the minds of our nation’s founders. The idea did not originate with them. In every age human beings have, as Emma Lazarus’ poem on the Statue of Liberty reads, yearned to “breathe free.”
Three thousand years before Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration, the Hebrew people suffered under bondage in Egypt. They yearned for freedom. God sent Mosses who demanded of Pharaoh, “Let me people go!” When Pharaoh refused, God delivered.
Fourteen hundred years later, the people were again oppressed, by the tyranny of the Roman Empire and by the powers and principalities of the world. Then God sent a man named Jesus. In his first sermon Jesus announced that he had been anointed by the Holy Spirit “to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives…to let the oppressed go free.”
This same liberating Jesus would later say to his closest followers, “If you continue in my word you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free…so if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
Freedom is an idea that originates in the very heart of God. In the beginning, when God created humankind, God could have made us puppet-like, so that whenever God wanted us to do something, God would just pull a string and we would do it. Think about what kind of relationship that would be. God created us, women and men, with the capacity and the responsibility to act as free moral agents. The desire for freedom is not simply a function of the human spirit. Its source is nothing less that the free will of the Living God.
There are more than fifty references to freedom in the New Testament, each of them exploring a different dimension of what Paul calls in Romans, “the glorious liberty of the children of God.”
Here in Galatians, however, there is a less than glorious atmosphere surrounding liberty. The church has divided into camps. There were those who believed that freedom meant license to do whatever you pleased. Hemingway famously said “What is moral is what you feel good after and what is bad is what you feel bad after.” First century Gnostics would not have said that. What they would have said is that setting the human spirit free from matter and flesh is the whole point of life and that what you actually do is of little consequence, so do what you please.
In response, Paul replied, “Do not use your freedom for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves of one another, for the whole law is summed up in this single commandment: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Of course another camp in the Galatian church was made up of those who thought it imperative to adhere to the requirements of religious ritual, most significantly, circumcision. That crowd would have said that freedom in Christ is all well and good, but that they felt much more secure remaining inside the old prison of a thousand do’s and don’ts.
Paul was passionately convinced that observing ritual or not observing was of no consequence. According to Paul, “The only thing that counts is faith working through love.”
Just as each generation of Americans must learn anew what our Pledge of Allegiance maintains- that civil liberty is a function of fidelity to justice, so each generation of Jesus’ followers must learn anew that Christian liberty is a function of fidelity to the law of love.
This is not romantic love in moonlight and violins kind of thing. This is love that Jesus spoke about. When he voiced the great commandment to love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength and all your mind, he was emphasizing ethics over emotion.
20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr put it this way: “basically love means…being responsible, responsible to our family, toward our civilization, and now by the pressures of history, toward the universe of humankind.”
To be free really means to be liberated form the prison of “me, myself, and I”. To be truly free is to be able to move beyond the self and, as one who is wise has put it, to move into the risk of love and to give oneself to the demand of service. To be free is to be free for responsibility, not from responsibility. I think of how Christ Jesus who had everything in the world going for himself- power, status, safety- how he chose, freely chose, to empty himself and take on the form of a servant for the sake of the world. That is freedom.
I think of how God made us as one human family, irrevocably bound to one another in God’s heart and mind from the very beginning so that we are by nature inclined toward one another. The need of the other is really our own need. The suffering of the other is, in a real sense, our own suffering.
There is a little test that Frederick Buechner suggests that can be used to see if we are tracking with this idea of love for others. Beuchner wrote: If you have not cried for someone other than yourself in the last year, then the chances are you are already dead!
That’s a good place to start, having feelings of empathy for the other. Yet it seems to me I haven’t passed that test until I actually do something- make a call, pay a visit, send a note, offer comfort, stand up for someone whose voice is not being heard. How did Paul put it? The only thing that matters is faith working through love.
By the will of God and through the power of the Holy Spirit, freedom and responsibility belong together in our lives and in the life of our faith communities.
The same is true, I believe, for our nation. One of America’s greatest gifts to the world is the notion of religious liberty. The state cannot impose religion, and all our citizens are free to exercise religion or not, according to their own wishes. But that does not mean that people of faith, all faiths, do not have a crucial role to play in the life of our nation.
We ought to be working every day to create a society that is marked by concern for the common good. We ought to be listening to the voices of those who are not being heard. We ought to be speaking out against excessive self-indulgence and naming the corrosive consequences of greed. Paul put it so plainly in this regard, “if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”
I believe that the United States has a particular calling- that we are called to be a servant people, bringing good news to the oppressed, modeling justice, proclaiming liberty to the captives. We live in an era that is desperate for moral leadership. What an opportunity we have. What a responsibility we share, to repair, to raise up, to build up, to offer hope for all those who mourn in our midst, beyond our shores, and even at our borders.
Learned Hand one of our nation’s most outstanding jurists, once asked himself, “What is the spirit of liberty?”
In answer, he wrote these eloquent words:
“The spirt of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women. It weighs their interests alongside its own, it remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded…the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, 2,000 years ago, taught humanity a lesson it has never learned but has never quite forgotten: that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest.”
Friends in Christ, as people of faith, may our pledge of allegiance be this day to that kind of kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven.